OBITUARIES: Sir Alan Wilson
Monday 09 October 1995
Wilson obtained a permanent place in the history of science as the first man to explain the difference between metals and insulators and thus give us our modern picture of the nature of semi-conductors. He carried out research into solid state physics, quantum theory and on the properties of metals, and wrote many influential books, including The Theory of Metals (1936), Semi-Conductors and Metals (1939) and Thermo- dynamics and Statistical Mechanics (1957).
Wilson was born on Merseyside in 1906 and won a scholarship from Wallasey Grammar School to Emmanuel College, Cambridge, at the age of 16. Studies in chemistry were followed by mathematics and then physics. Academic success, prizes and college fellowships followed thick and fast, including the Smith's Prize in 1928 and the Adams Prize in 1931. He became a Fellow of the Royal Society at a young age in 1942.
Wilson had a strong practical bent and his experiences in the Second World War, participating in the British effort on atomic research and development, undoubtedly stimulated an inclination to combine the practical with the intellectual and in 1945 he joined the Board of Courtaulds as its research director. After re-organising and building up the research division at Courtaulds he was appointed managing director in 1954 before finally becoming deputy chairman in 1957. He was knighted in 1961.
The hotly contested bid for Courtaulds by ICI led Wilson to move to Glaxo in 1963 as chairman, in succession to Sir Harry Jephcott. The 10 years he remained as executive chairman proved to be his most creative in industry. He brought together and reorganised under a new holding company (Glaxo Group) a disparate collection of uncoordinated businesses - the result of a series of undigested mergers in the late Fifties and early Sixties. He initiated a truly international approach by breaking the "Commonwealth" mould in which Glaxo had been fixed and entering the European markets head on.
A decisive step was the establishment of effective basic research in the group. The small unit he created and quietly nurtured and sustained was to become one of the most fruitful centres in the world and the source, with some exceptions, of all the Glaxo products sold today.
Finally, haunted by takeover bids, he saw Glaxo through a bitter wrangle involving Glaxo, Boots and Beecham. Buttressed by transparent intellectual honesty, Wilson's clear and reasoned exposition of the economic waste and damage to research brought about by that sort of financial engineering persuaded the Monopolies Commission to put a stop to the whole affair.
There was much more to Alan Wilson than this sequence suggests and it is not easy to classify the very wide range of activities which engaged him throughout his life. He had an exemplary record of public service which took him to the Iron and Steel Board, the Electricity Council, and the Committee on Noise, among many others. Pursuing a lifelong and passionate belief in the value of education, he played important parts in a number of educational bodies and a particular achievement in this area was the Industrial Fund for Education, with its aim to provide funds from industry for science laboratories in schools. Wilson's deep interest in Britain's history, traditions, education and craftsmanship is exemplified in his long and close association with the Goldsmiths' Company, where he served as Prime Warden in 1969-70.
Wilson had exceptional intellectual gifts with a mind of remarkable depth, clarity and powers of reasoning which often worked at such a pace that one could be forgiven for thinking that his conclusions were purely intuitive. They never were. He was modest to the extent of being self-effacing and this may have contributed to his fate of being often misunderstood and his achievements always underrated. But he saw more to life than material sciences, logic and mathematics. He had the widest of interests in art and literature and was at home in any field of human activity. His weakness stemmed from the difficulties he had, in spite of his high moral courage, in dealing adequately with the irrational and the mean and the pursuit of selfish interests and petty power politics in practical and business affairs.
In all his activities he had the unswerving support of his wife, Margaret, who died prematurely in 1961, and whose loss he felt very deeply.
Alan Wilson deserves honour as a scientist, industrialist and as a man of wide interest and finest personal qualities. The academic and industrial worlds still have a great need for men of this sort.
Alan Herries Wilson, scientist, industrialist: born Wallasey, Merseyside 2 July 1906; Fellow, Emmanuel College, Cambridge 1929-33; Fellow and Lecturer, Trinity College, Cambridge 1933-45; University Lecturer in Mathematics, Cambridge University 1933-45; FRS 1942; research director, Courtaulds 1945-54, managing director 1954-57, deputy chairman 1957-62; Kt 1961; director, International Computers Ltd 1962-72; chairman, Glaxo Group Ltd 1963-73; married 1934 Margaret Monks (died 1961; two sons); died 30 September 1995.
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